Thursday, July 15, 2010

10th Circuit Upholds Diocese's Use of the Ministerial Exception

The Court of Appeals for the Tenth Circuit upheld the district court's grant of summary judgment and found that the Roman Catholic Diocese of Tulsa fit under the ministerial exception to Title VII which protected it against a former employee’s federal employment law claims of sex and age discrimination and hostile work environment. The case is Skrzypczak v. Roman Catholic Diocese of Tulsa, No. 09-5089 (10th Cir. July 13, 2010).

From the opinion:

The ministerial exception preserves a church’s “essential” right to choose the people who will “preach its values, teach its message, and interpret its doctrines[,] both to its own membership and to the world at large,” free from the interference of civil employment laws. Bryce, 289 F.3d at 656 (internal quotation marks omitted). Although the doctrine usually comes into play in employment suits between an ordained minister and her church, it extends to any employee who serves in a position that “is important to the spiritual and pastoral mission of the church.” Rayburn v. Gen. Conference of Seventh-Day Adventists, 772 F.2d 1164, 1169 (4th Cir. 1985).

In support of its motion, the Diocese provided the court with a copy of the Appellant’s job description, which included a list of her primary duties, the Appellant’s employment application, a list of religious courses that Appellant taught at the Diocese’s Pastoral Studies Institute, Institute’s mission statement, and an affidavit from Bishop Slattery describing Appellant’s role at the Institute and as the director of the Department of Religious Formation. Upon review of these materials, the Court stated:

...we have no doubt that Appellant’s principal duties included at least some
tasks that were purely administrative in nature. However, the evidence also tends to show her position was not limited to a merely administrative role, but it also involved responsibilities that furthered the core of the spiritual mission of the Diocese.

A National Law Journal article (login required) on this case notes the Wisconsin Supreme Court's ruling last year that held that a fired Catholic school teacher cannot sue for discrimination because many religious school teachers are not protected by state discrimination laws. In the 4-3 decision, the court said religious schools have a constitutional right to hire and fire employees to carry out their missions, and that includes many teachers.

UPDATE: Professor Paul Secunda over at Workplace Prof Blog posted on this and added some input.

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